Talking tough

In her first official visit to Moscow, Condi Rice crusades for democracy and defends the freedom of the press.

Published April 20, 2005 1:38PM (EDT)

The Kremlin's alleged backsliding on democracy is "very worrying," the U.S. secretary of state said Tuesday on the eve of her meeting with the Russian president in Moscow. Condoleezza Rice expressed increasing concern at the consolidation of power inside the Kremlin, and warned Vladimir Putin not to cling to power beyond his present term.

The comments, made to reporters traveling with her on her first official visit to Moscow, carried even greater resonance because of her status within the Bush administration, where she is one of President Bush's most trusted confidantes. In addition, she was an expert on the former Soviet Union before becoming involved in Republican politics and joining the government.

In the harsher of two attacks on Putin's reforms since her appointment, she told reporters Tuesday that "trends [in Russia] have not been positive on the democratic side." The secretary of state had been expected to water down her past criticism of the Kremlin as the United States attempts to draw Russia closer to the West with trade incentives.

She will meet Putin Wednesday to smooth the way for a summit meeting between him and Bush when the U.S. president attends the 60th anniversary Victory Day celebrations in Moscow on May 9.

Speaking aboard her aircraft as she flew to the Russian capital, she told reporters: "The centralization of state power in the presidency at the expense of countervailing institutions like the Duma [lower house of Parliament] or an independent judiciary is clearly very worrying."

Rice's arrival in Moscow Tuesday night was lent added drama when her motorcade was diverted to the U.S. Embassy after a bomb threat at the hotel where she was to stay. It was a false alarm.

The Kremlin has faced criticism since Putin approved plans to replace elected regional governors with his appointees. His allies claim the reforms will strengthen state control in the fight against Chechen terrorism, but the U.S. and Britain have warned that the Russian electorate is being sidelined.

Rice also condemned the growing state manipulation of Russia's broadcast media, saying: "The absence of an independent media on the electronic side is clearly very worrying."

The Kremlin and the Foreign Ministry refused to comment on the accusations.

Her comments appeared to be a fresh sign of Washington's crusading attitude to spreading democracy in all its bilateral relations. Rice signaled a toughened U.S. stance on Russia shortly after her appointment in January, when she called on Moscow to "make clear to the world that it is intent on strengthening the rule of law, strengthening the role of an independent judiciary, [and] permitting a free and independent press."

In U.S. eyes, the prosecutions of Mikhail Khodorkovsky (a billionaire critic of Putin) and other executives of the Yukos oil company have raised doubts about the Kremlin's commitment to democracy. Another concern is the state's increasing domination of television channels. Soon after meeting Rice in Turkey two months ago, Russia's smooth-talking foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, gave her a CD with a compilation of Russian TV reports. His attempt to prove a plurality of coverage has clearly failed. Rice said Tuesday that the lack of media freedom was her "principal concern."

Her comments appeared to answer the pleas of Reporters Without Borders, an international media protection organization that had urged her to condemn the narrowing of press freedom in Russia.

Relations between Moscow and Washington have cooled since their high point of cooperation in the "war on terror" after Sept. 11, 2001. At their last summit in Slovakia in February, Putin responded to Bush's overtures by stressing that Russia would follow its own "history and traditions" in pursuit of democracy.

Despite her harsh comments, Rice admitted after her arrival in Moscow Tuesday night that there was a "considerable amount of individual freedom" in Russia. "One can't imagine reverting back to Soviet times," she said.

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